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Highly Unorthodox: The Week Lebanon Went Secular (And Ended Up More Sectarian Than Ever…)

[Mock Lebanese license plate, as part of 2005 anti-sectarian ad campaign. Image from] [Mock Lebanese license plate, as part of 2005 anti-sectarian ad campaign. Image from]

When some future historian writes a chronicle of twenty-first-century Lebanon, she will likely devote a bemused footnote to the odd events of February 2013, when the country’s leaders saw fit to tear down a pillar of the confessional regime one week, only to erect another one a week later. On 11 February, the Justice Ministry ruled that the recent civil marriage of Khouloud Sukkarieh and Nidal Darwish was legal, thereby establishing a momentous precedent that will likely have serious repercussions on the hold of religious authorities over personal status issues in Lebanon. As I suggested in a piece for Jadaliyya last month:

The long-term implications of such a development could be very interesting. Lebanon’s politics are based, in a fundamental way, on the parsing of the country’s population into discrete confessional communities. What happens when we begin to see people transgress the boundaries of these communities in greater numbers? What happens if, five years from today, there are 150,000 people who do not belong–administratively speaking–to an official sect? How would such people run for political office under the current system? How would they get divorced and bequeath property to their children? Speaking of their children, what is their own administrative status? Might all of these uncertainties end up providing a disincentive to remove one’s confessional ID altogether? Stepping back, is there a case to be made for creating a “19th sect” (i.e., the secular sect) that has representation in Parliament? Alternatively, would it not make more sense to start taking seriously the long deferred problems of the confessional system altogether?


Not so fast, partner. Just a few days later, on 19 February, the joint parliamentary committees tasked with formulating a draft electoral law for the upcoming parliamentary elections approved the much-maligned Orthodox Gathering Lawestablishing another momentous precedent that will likely have serious repercussions on the future of Lebanon’s social contract.

How to make sense of these contradictory developments? On the one hand, the country suddenly lurches forward toward a post-confessional Third Republic, in which citizens can marry whom they choose without submitting to the laws of the religious establishment. On the other hand, the most reactionary elements of the political class somehow manage to force through an electoral law that threatens to turn the rickety Lebanese model of confessional power-sharing into a system of unapologetic sectarian apartheid.

In a way, I rather hope that the Orthodox Law is passed by Parliament, as I think it will make it easier for civil society to mobilize public support for serious institutional reform in Lebanon. How might this happen? For starters, I’d suggest that groups like Take Back Parliament start organizing free “deconfessionalize yourself” drives, in which they help people strike off their confessional status from their civil registry IDs. Besides the publicity this would generate, it would also create a serious suffrage issue: who would these sect-less individuals be allowed to vote for under the Orthodox Law? I envision protests outside polling stations on election day with people holding up placards saying that they are being prevented from voting on the basis of religion. You get the idea…

Alternatively, we might see a mass conversion to Judaism

[This article was originally published on Qifa Nabki]

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